Former Police Chief Art Acevedo’s return to Austin fuels angst in the community

Several social justice leaders told KUT his return is a step backward and undermines the work many in the community have been doing to reform the criminal justice system, especially around sexual assault cases.

By Luz Moreno-Lozano, KUTJanuary 23, 2024 9:52 am, ,

From KUT:

Art Acevedo’s return to Austin is raising concerns among critics of his handling of sexual assault cases when he was police chief.

Austin on Friday announced it would bring Acevedo back in a newly created role as an interim assistant city manager over policing. The news came as a surprise to some officials, City Council members and social justice leaders.

The city will pay Acevedo $271,000 a year. Officials say the money will come from the general fund, but it’s unclear if the money was pulled from other areas in the budget to make it work.

Acevedo served as Austin’s chief of police from 2007 to 2016. He left to become Houston’s police chief. Since then, he’s worked in Miami and Colorado, and spent some time as a CNN analyst.

But Acevedo has a complicated history with Austin — most notably when it was discovered that several hundred rape kits had gone untested. The kits are used to collect and preserve DNA evidence when there’s an allegation of sexual assault.

Some of these cases dated back to the 1990s. That backlog worsened after APD shuttered its DNA crime lab in June 2016 after an audit by the Texas Forensic Science Commission found several issues with it. Acevedo was leading the police department at the time.

It took two years for the city to finish testing the kits. The city also settled a nearly $1 million lawsuit that alleged it mishandled sexual assault cases.

Many local leaders, social justice advocates, City Council members and sexual assault survivors say since his departure, a lot of work has been done to improve response to sexual assault cases and reform the criminal justice system. This undermines those efforts, they say.

Travis County District Attorney José Garza called the move a step back.

“We have to remember that just over five years ago, survivors of sexual assault were forced to sue the city [including Acevedo] because those officials failed to adequately investigate and prosecute the crimes committed against them,” Garza said. “We have made a lot of progress in this area, and we should remember that the progress we made came at great costs and as a result of great struggle for survivors of sexual assault. And we should also remember that we still have much work to do.”

Chris Harris, policy director for the Austin Justice Coalition, said Acevedo’s return is not only a step back, but also a slap in the face to survivors of sexual assault who have worked to implement change in the system. He called Acevedo “one of the main people responsible for exacerbating their trauma.”

“This is a bad move all around,” he said, “and I think one that no one likes.”

Harris said he also felt like the role was designed to diminish the powers of the police chief. Robin Henderson has been serving as interim chief since Joseph Chacon retired.

“In every way it’s an underhanded move that undermines a lot of positive things that I think the city is trying to do,” he said.

Michael Bullock, the president for the Austin Police Association, told KUT News the announcement came by surprise. Bullock says one of the primary concerns among police officers is whether Acevedo will support and listen to Henderson or “return as chief basically.”

“I recognize that (the city manager is) not obligated to involve me, but if you are hoping to build trust and collaboration, involving us in these types of processes or even more so than a heads up before a decision is announced would be beneficial,” he said. “We’re all here to work together. But I do feel like this sets us back a little bit because now we’re shifting a relationship and strategies it seems like. And where we were moving forward, we are going to have to pause, wait and see what is going to happen with this new role.”

Interim Assistant City Manager Bruce Mills had been overseeing public safety, including the police department, and was working with the union.

The union has been in a stalemate with the city over a long-term labor contract, and the department has over 350 vacancies. One of Acevedo’s duties will be to help move negotiations along. Mills will continue to oversee public safety, except APD, city officials said.

Bullock said the APA is willing to work with Acevedo and hopes he can move the department forward.

Acevedo is expected to begin his new role this month.

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